February 9, 2018

I’ve been to a fair number of sh…ur, economically impoverished nations, but Cuba is the first one I’ve been to that actually has a separate currency for tourists. Now anyone who has traveled knows that ripping off a Western tourist is standard operating procedure the world over: the cabbies of Casablanca leave their meters off and charge ten times the local rate; the bars on the coast of Cozumel post their prices in dolares instead of pesos; the ‘vintage clothing’ store in Ho Chi Minh City sells you clothing from other tourists’ stolen baggage at a price you’d expect from a hipster joint in Brooklyn.

But like everything else in Cuba, ripping off tourists is a government run enterprise. The locals use the Cuban Peso, ISO code CUP, locally referred to as just ‘peso’. Tourists hitting up money changers are issued Cuban Convertible Peso, ISO code CUC, locally referred to as ‘CUCs’, which is worth twenty-five times the local peso (a CUC is roughly $1). With the local accent, it’s pronounced more or less “kooks”, as in “that Havana style straw hat that costs ten pesos to a local will cost you ten kooks, Yanqi!”. Also converting US dollars to CUCs costs a 10% fuck-you-too fee, so if you are a ‘Murica!n heading to Cuba, you want to convert your dollars to Euros before you go (or Canadian dollars if you’re slumming it).

Cubans receive their government salary in pesos (and every job is a gov job), and stores that sell basic goods (anything not geared for tourists) have historically sold all their goods and services in pesos. Businesses specifically intended for tourists hock their much pricier wares in CUCs, which aren’t readily accessible to the locals: government wages range from $30-$50 a month (30-50 CUCs) even if you’re a doctor, so that delicious ropa vieja with a beer that seemed like a cheap meal for $12 is practically rent money in Havana. More recently with the creation of licenses for private business, local stores now accept both currencies (private business licenses have only have existed for the last seven years or so from what I was told). As a tourist you’re getting CUCs, not local pesos, and the populace will try pretty hard to separate them from you - every guy keeps a couple shitty cigars on their person to hock to people who don’t know anything about Cuban cigars.

One of the perverse situations this has created for what was intended to be a socialist paradise is that most of the relatively common products the country produces are solely for tourists or export by the government: lobster isn’t a thing outside tourist restaurants, beef is prohibitively expensive even though cows are ubiquitous, and Habano cigars are an experience reserved only for high ranking government officials and the actual cigar rollers (plus their friends, family, and whoever they need to bribe). If you want to get ahead in Cuba, you have to have a black market side hustle.